Craig Fehrman on Presidential Prose

Andrew Heisel

Four years ago, we traded one of our most literary presidents for one of our least literary, moving from the author of an admired memoir to a president known for composing rancorous, misspelled tweets. Yet Donald Trump actually has his name on far more books—nineteen—than Barack Obama. Presidential authorship need not require talent, or authorship, as the ghostwriters attached to most political books attest. So what can be learned from studying the writing of the people who have occupied the nation’s highest office? 

A lot, it turns out. In a new book, Author in Chief, journalist Craig Ferhman examines the writing by every United States president, situating each within his historical context—and revealing vanities, insecurities, and intrigues along the way. Taking us on a journey from a bygone era when books were peddled on the back of a wagon rolling through the undeveloped countryside, to the modern rise of the eight-figure blockbuster book deal, Fehrman reveals that presidents and their words are as subject to history as they are shapers of it. George Washington’s famous “Farewell Address” would not have been his farewell address if a taboo against ghostwriting had not kept the fact that Alexander Hamilton wrote it largely hidden for a hundred years. There would have been no Dreams from My Father, with its composite characters and fractured identity, without the influence of Maxine Hong Kingston’s multi-vocal, genre-bending Woman Warrior.  There might have been no President Lincoln had candidate Lincoln not seen the market appeal of his own elegant speechwriting. And there would have been no Art of the Deal (and maybe no …) had Iacocca not made unexpected millions and led publishers to try to repeat the success with other businessmen.

I met Fehrman when he began working on this project as a PhD student at Yale University a decade ago. We went back-and-forth via a Google doc between stops on his book tour.

—Andrew Heisel

You choose as an epigraph a line from Harry Truman’s wife, Bess: “Everyone else connected with Washington has written a book. I am certainly not going to compound the felony.” You stack the deck against yourself, reminding us how unwelcome most political books are. How did you find the interest, the humanity, in them? 

Some presidential books are quite revealing; some are feloniously bad. But even bad books can be revealing when you go behind the scenes. After he lost the White House in 1800, John Adams wrote a 440-page autobiographical manuscript—the first presidential memoir—and it’s interesting as a historical document: it reveals something about his period’s shifting ideas about the individual, it includes a ton of details about Adams’s diplomatic missions, etc. But Adams’s struggles to write it, and the reflective mindset those struggles put him in, are just as interesting. After Adams gave up on his unfinished manuscript, a friend urged him to try again. “I have made several attempts,” Adams replied, “but it is so dull an employment that I cannot endure it. I look so much like a small boy in my own eyes that with all my vanity I cannot endure the sight of the picture.”

That feels pretty human to me. 

A number of presidents had literary aspirations, with many, including Washington and Lincoln, writing poetry. John Quincy Adams seems most serious about the pursuit. But, you show, he feared the public would not allow a man to be both a “man of business and a man of rhyme.” Woodrow Wilson later picks up the theme, talking about the quarrel between “men who write” and “men who act.” Can the literary mind govern? Can the political mind write?

One reason so many early presidents experimented with poetry is that poetry was popular culture in their time—Madison wrote poetry in college, for instance, but by the time Calvin Coolidge got to college he tried to write magazine-style fiction. So their juvenilia says something about the evolution of popular literary forms.

But a handful of presidents, most notably John Quincy Adams and Barack Obama, thought very hard about becoming professional literary authors. I think Adams was right that doing so and then running for office would require a tricky balancing act, to satisfy voters. (Running for office is itself a tricky balancing act: you have to be inspirational and approachable, all at once.)

To me, though, the biggest issue isn’t with voters but with the politicians themselves. I think being a serious writer and being a serious politician require two fundamentally different ways of seeing the world. I love the Wilson lecture you mentioned, where he teased out those differences. (Writers seek new and challenging ideas, for instance; politicians seek ideas that majorities will accept—“the thoughts that are completed,” in Wilson’s nice phrase.) But I’ll share one more example I didn’t put in the book. It’s from Jim Webb, who wrote some well-regarded Vietnam fiction before he ran for office. Here’s what Webb told the New York Times in 1983: “Politics is the art of taking ambiguities and boiling them down simply enough so you can say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It is the opposite of writing. In writing you take these ambiguities and you expand them. You flesh them out. You deal with them.”

I think that’s mostly right. While America’s presidents have written a surprising number of important and impactful books—I wouldn’t have much of a book myself if they hadn’t!—they have also needed to toggle between the writing mindset and the politics mindset, especially after winning real political power. You could argue that once he got to the White House, Obama held on to too much of the writing mindset; I sometimes wonder if a current writerly candidate, Pete Buttigieg, might repeat that mistake.

Dreams from My Father has come to be regarded as one of the greatest books by a politician. Starting in 2008, conspiracists, including the current President, claimed it was not written by Obama at all. How have politics and aesthetics intersected with regards to other Presidents’ books? Do critics on the other side of the aisle tend to sublimate political critiques into stylistic ones?

I didn’t find many examples of political types caring about style. There were a few. One favorite was an 1824 pamphlet that tried to connect Andrew Jackson to the ubiquitous European contempt for American literature. What, this anti-Jackson pamphlet wondered, will British “reviewers, who have hitherto defamed even the best writings of our countrymen, say of a people who want a man to govern them who cannot spell more than about one word in four?” But most political critiques have focused on content. Honestly, Washington’s literary culture just doesn’t seem equipped to consider questions of style. 

Book critics, on the other hand, seem to suffer from the opposite problem—they focus on the style at the expense of the content, especially with presidential memoirs. These books try to feel presidential, which can make them boring and stately, and a lot of reviews sort of let them off the hook in a similarly stuffy way—they don’t really hammer Bush for the policies in Decision Points, because once he’s an ex-president, he’s not seen as a political figure but as a kind of national mascot. The reviews of these memoirs seem as worried about evaluating the prose as grappling with the ideas or actions. I wish instead critics and journalists would evaluate both their style and  content.

During the the pre-Civil War era, campaign biographies had different Northern and Southern versions. Today, politicians get in trouble for stuff like that—think Obama on guns and religion in San Francisco, or Romney on the 47% in a private fundraiser. Was it easier to present different selves to different audiences back then?  

It was, because campaigns (and political journalists) were less professionalized but also because information did not circulate as easily. One thing I tried to do in my book was keep material questions in mind. How much did books cost in a particular period? How were books transported? For most of American history, the answers were “a lot” and “not well.”

One place to see this play out was the publication of Political Debates between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, which reprinted transcripts of their famous Senate debates, just in time for the presidential election of 1860. Lincoln was the key figure behind that publication. It took him a lot of work to get copies of the various newspapers in order to edit and to collate those transcriptions. His contemporaries could not grasp why he wanted these old issues—they saw them as breaking news that had already broken. It wasn’t just that there was no Google in 1860. It was that most people did not see the value in old transcripts that Lincoln saw.

But his book became an enormous best seller and the inspiration for countless discussions and newspaper editorials. One newspaper, which leaned more toward Douglas than Lincoln, called Political Debates a “textbook of sure value in the coming campaign.”

Lincoln, of course, is the perplexing exception to the writing mind vs. political mind dilemma. He wrote so, so well. That same newspaper decided that, in the book, Lincoln came off as the better stylist of the two: The editorial noted that his side of the debates contained “a marshaling of sentences unsurpassed in the most brilliant speeches of American orators.”

Today we so often think of politicians’ old words coming back to haunt them, as you show they had even haunted Jefferson. But Lincoln rested his political career on such past utterances. Look how eloquent I was. Look how right I was! Was it his writing ability that charmed Americans, over and above his platform?

With Lincoln it’s actually kind of hard to disentangle his style, his persona, his platform, and his medium. He also kept material questions in mind, which is how and why he came up with Political Debates. (It’s important to note that Lincoln wrote his wonderful “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions,” a lecture that argued the printing press had a unique power to “emancipate the mind,” at the same time he was assembling his book.)

So all of those things charmed voters, and the way they reinforced each other charmed voters, too. When politicians can get their style and life story and political beliefs to line up—Obama was another example of this; so was Calvin Coolidge—they can appeal to voters in so many ways. In 1856, Lincoln did some stumping in support of John C. Fremont, the Republicans’ presidential nominee. At this point in history, the nominees did not stump themselves because it was seen as arrogant and unpresidential—they relied on surrogates like Lincoln, as Lincoln would do in 1860, though his best surrogate was his book.

Anyway, in the middle of one such event, an elderly Democrat stomped off mid-speech. “He’s a dangerous man,” he said of Lincoln. “A damned dangerous man! He makes you believe what he says, in spite of yourself.”

Lincoln charmed with his eloquence, but the current President enthralls the nation with his omnipresence. If you download Trump’s Twitter account, it yields about 837,000 words, probably about as much as all his books combined. It’s tremendously effective messaging for him, and already was in 2016. So why did he put out Crippled America when running? Why will he probably release another book when out of office? What do these books do today?

What these books do is make money, for their authors and their publishers. It’s still common to think of big political books—a $15 million advance for Bill Clinton; about half of that for George W. Bush—as silly, misguided bets. As Roger Straus put it when the Clinton book was announced, “Publishing books by famous politicians is an ego trip for publishers.” But My Life turned a big profit.

Trump and his allies funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to publishers in 2016, bulk-buying both The Art of the Deal and Crippled America. So I think Trump put out the book to facilitate that, and also because every candidate puts out a book. The weird thing, if you read it, is that while Trump hits the same themes in Crippled America that he hits on Twitter—Fake News, Drain the Swamp, the book is less angry and partisan than his Twitter feed. It has moments, however hackneyed, in which it attempts to appeal to all Americans and not just to Trump’s base.

This may be a sign of how little Trump was involved in his book. Or it may be a sign of how he’s changed as a politician. Either way, I suspect that his presidential memoirs, if he is involved in any meaningful way, will be far more angry and partisan than his predecessors’. Maybe that will force book critics to engage with the book’s ideas instead of just clucking about its style or tone.