Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
George Washington founded a nation and set the tone for future leaders. Martin Van Buren was the first American-born president and the first of Dutch heritage. Abraham Lincoln ended slavery and was the first president to be assassinated. Harry Truman dropped the atomic bomb. Franklin Roosevelt led the country out of the Great Depression. Richard Nixon became synonymous with Watergate. And Ronald Reagan, also known as The Great Communicator, won the Cold War.
If someone were to give you one line in history, what would it be? Leaders—especially presidents—have legacies by default. Each is infinitely more complex than a single issue or event associated with their name. No matter who you are, you would be wise to leave behind your own words. You never know how your life may unfold and where your paths may lead. Without voicing your values, you leave the door wide open for assumptions and problematic interpretations about your experiences and beliefs. And then who will speak for you when you’re gone? Friends, family members, colleagues, teachers—how well do they know you? Do they have the full story?
Former president George W. Bush revealed that his late father, former president George H. W. Bush, didn’t like the “L” word—legacy—which he thought was “kind of self-serving.” This didn’t stop the son from penning 41: A Portrait of My Father. “If you really think about it,” George W. Bush remarked, “your contributions to the country will never be fully known until there’s a passage of time.” In truth, one’s contributions will never be fully known unless they are preserved in good writing and recorded conversations.
Legacy does not need to be self-serving. Preserving one’s own legacy can be a proactive form of pre-serving those who follow. Remembering Bush senior, Obama remarked, “I think more than anything you learn from when you look at your predecessors is — what are the actions they took that you admire? What are the mistakes they made that you want to avoid? They tend to be in some ways, speaking to you through their own record, continuously.”
While the records of our deeds and accomplishments may speak for themselves to future generations, we must not count on it. Some say that Obama’s legacy is being threatened and parts of it undone: the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare; Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA); and the Paris climate change agreement. It’s too soon to tell what his lasting legacy will be. In the most dire circumstances, all that will be remembered is that Obama once had the audacity to wear a tan suit. Though, that’s unlikely.
Obama had the foresight to begin documenting his personal and political journey early on in his memoir, Dreams from My Fathers: A Story of Race and Inheritance, originally published in 1995, when he was a lawyer and law professor campaigning for a seat in the Illinois Senate.
The memoir explores personal issues of race, identity and community from his early years in Honolulu and Chicago up until entering Harvard Law School in 1988. Leading up to the 2008 presidential election, he dropped a few more breadcrumbs on the trail with a second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, sharing his values and vision for the future.
Obama recalled that his first book was harder to write: “At that point, I wasn’t even sure that I could write a book. And writing the first book really was a process of self-discovery, since it touched on my family and my childhood in a much more intimate way. On the other hand, writing The Audacity of Hope paralleled the work that I do every day—trying to give shape to all the issues that we face as a country, and providing my own personal stamp on them.”
These narratives are not exclusively reserved for past presidents as we’ve seen in the recent release of former first lady Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. She holds her own special place in history as the first African American to serve in that role, and she took it upon herself to create an inclusive White House and advocate for women and girls around the world. She planted a vegetable garden on the White House’s South Lawn and launched the Let’s Move campaign, focusing on food access, fitness, and nutrition.
Before her book came out, Michelle Obama denied rumors of running for office in 2020 and beyond on the Today show. Instead she said that there are so many ways to make an impact and she wants to continue working on positive issues with girls around the world—thereby maintaining her legacy. She advised girls in the audience to stay true to themselves. “It’s up to you to determine what’s your message and how you want to use your voice,” she said.
Then there’s someone like Dick Cheney who flunked out of Yale University and “started living as hard as he worked,” but went on to become one of the most powerful vice presidents, serving alongside George W. Bush. In his memoir In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, Cheney takes readers on a 578-page journey from Lincoln, Nebraska, to the White House with flashes of humor, honesty, and wisdom.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words, Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate, Mitch McConnell’s The Long Game: A Memoir, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s What Happened, James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, John McCain’s The Restless Wave—these days, it’s hard to find a leader without a memoir turned New York Times Bestseller.
Maybe you’re at the beginning of your journey. Maybe you’re serving on your local city council or county board or you’re a campaign volunteer. Maybe your aspirations to be a leader are little more than a whisper in a dream. Wherever you are, start documenting your steps now so you can see how far you’ve come. Each choice we make, each job we take—no matter how disjointed they may seem—each one is like a puzzle piece. By writing about your life up to this moment in time, you’re carving out those jagged pieces that are part of a bigger picture that’s just beginning to take shape.
We write stories to mine moments and meaning from our lives. Taken altogether, they begin to reveal how our backgrounds, upbringings, and experiences informed our thoughts, opinions and belief systems. We’re able to understand so much more about people, about ourselves—with depth and nuance—if there’s a trail to follow with markers along the way. That’s where legacies begin.