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A Brief History of Presidential Memoirs

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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, is sparking all sorts of picketing and protesting around the U.K., so we thought it might be a good time to take a look at a few presidential memoirs from this side of the pond. Here are a few things you might not have known about former presidents’ literary output.

Best Choice of (Possible) Ghostwriter

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Ulysses S. Grant should have been on sound financial footing when he finished his second term in 1877. He was arguably the world’s most famous war hero, and he had been in the White House for eight years. In reality, though, his finances were anything but stable. Following a two-year trip around the world and a disastrous investment with a swindling banking partner, Grant found himself on the verge of bankruptcy; he even had to sell his Civil War mementos to pay off debts.

He still had access to that great presidential cash cow, the memoir, though. Mark Twain approached Grant about publishing the war hero’s memoirs with a plum deal that would give Grant 75% of the profits as royalties. Cash-strapped Grant had little choice but to accept Twain’s offer, and the Civil War-focused Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant hit stores in 1885.

Grant’s memoirs were an instant runaway hit. Twain’s company made the clever choice of employing former Union soldiers in full uniform as salesmen, and the book became one of the best sellers of the 19th century. Today, the book is considered by many to be the best presidential memoir ever written, but there’s some controversy over who actually did the bulk of the writing. Twain always claimed that he had only made slight edits to Grant’s text, but the prose was so strong that many suspected Twain himself had ghostwritten the book.

Sadly, Grant didn’t get to see the success of his book; he died shortly after its completion. But his widow Julia banked over $400,000 in royalties from the memoir.

Worst Financial Windfall

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While today’s presidents are financially set for life from publishing and consulting gigs when they leave the Oval Office, just 57 years ago that wasn’t the case.

When Harry Truman’s term ended in 1953, he didn’t have any savings to speak of, and he felt taking a corporate job would cheapen the presidency. His only income was a $112-a-month pension from his days in the Army.

Truman decided that the best way to drum up some cash was to sell his memoirs, for which he got a $670,000 advance. By the time he paid taxes and his assistants, though, Truman only netted a few grand on the two-volume work. Eventually his financial straits grew so dire that Congress passed the Former Presidents Act in 1958 to guarantee annual pensions of $25,000 to former presidents.

Best Use of Revisionist History

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History has judged James Buchanan pretty harshly; most scholars rank him among the worst presidents we’ve ever had. You know who was a bit more sympathetic in his appraisal of the failed Buchanan administration, though? James Buchanan. In 1866 Buchanan published the first-ever presidential memoir, the magnificently titled Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion.

In his book, Buchanan tried to set the record straight about his presidency. By the time Buchanan’s memoir came out, the Civil War had ended and Abraham Lincoln had become a national icon, so Buchanan attempted to liken his own policies to Honest Abe’s. Sure, Buchanan had opposed abolitionists and was considered to be a doughface—a Northerner with Southern sympathies—but in his mind, he was just like Lincoln and felt history would someday set the record straight. Unfortunately for Mr. Buchanan, it didn’t.

Most Honest Use of a Ghostwriter

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Ronald Reagan was quick with a quip, and he dropped one of his best one-liners at the release of his 1990 memoir An American Life. Publisher Simon & Schuster held a press conference for the release of the book, which Reagan had supposedly penned “with the editorial assistance of Robert Lindsey." In truth, it sounds like Lindsey may have received only the slightest assistance from Reagan. The Gipper joked at the press conference, “I hear it's a terrific book! One of these days I'm going to read it myself.”

Worst Sales Loss at the Hands of a Spouse

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Poor Gerald Ford just couldn’t win any respect. When his memoir A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford came out in 1979, his wife, Betty, also had a memoir on the stands, The Times of My Life. Betty gave her husband a t-shirt that read “Bet My Book Outsells Yours” for his birthday. To make the crummy gift even worse, she was right. At least Ford was in good company; Nancy Reagan’s memoirs also outsold her husband’s.

Quickest Read

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Calvin Coolidge earned the nickname “Silent Cal” for being famously taciturn, and his memoirs weren’t uncharacteristically verbose. Coolidge takes the prize for the shortest presidential memoir—The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge comes in at a tight-lipped 247 pages.

Biggest Advance

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Bill Clinton got an astounding $15 million advance from Knopf for his 900-page behemoth of a memoir My Life. When Clinton signed the deal, publishing analysts figured the book would have to sell upwards of 800,000 hardcover copies just to break even, but Knopf aggressively ordered a presidential-record-breaking first run of 1.5 million copies.

To give you a sense of perspective, Richard Nixon’s memoirs sold 330,000 and were considered a huge hit; to justify this advance, Bubba was going to have to really move some books. But as of 2008, Clinton had not just surpassed that monstrous advance; he had pocketed nearly $30 million from sales of My Life and his follow-up, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. Hilary wasn’t doing so badly for herself in the publishing game, either. Her book Living History made her more than $10 million.

Longest Takedown of FDR

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Like Buchanan, Herbert Hoover doesn’t get much love from historians, but he certainly stood up for himself. After leaving office in 1933 after what’s generally agreed was a fairly disastrous stint, Hoover needed 18 years to crank out the first tome of his mammoth three-volume memoir. His main goal? Explaining why his presidency wasn’t really a failure and bashing the policies of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt.

Among Hoover’s most memorable smears of FDR: “The effort to crossbreed some features of Fascism and Socialism with our American free system speedily developed in the Roosevelt administration." Take that, New Deal!

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

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"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
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"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

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1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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