All the Presidents’ Doodles

A history in sketches

After Somali militiamen killed eighteen U.S. soldiers in October 1993, President Clinton convened his national-security team. He sat silently while being briefed. Then, his aide Richard Clarke recalled, “When they had talked themselves out, Clinton stopped doodling and looked up. ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.’”

We imagine White House meetings to be efficient and focused on grave matters; we don’t imagine the president dithering, daydreaming, or making idle scribbles—especially during moments of national crisis. But presidents, like the rest of us, doodle. Dwight Eisenhower drew sturdy, 1950s images: tables, pencils, nuclear weapons. A Herbert Hoover scrawl provided the pattern for a line of rompers. Ronald Reagan dispensed cheery cartoons to aides. John F. Kennedy reportedly doodled the word poverty at the last cabinet meeting before his death.

In an age of politics as scripted spectacle, these doodles, made without speechwriters or focus groups, promise a glimpse of the unguarded president. Because their meaning may be opaque even to the doodler himself, they invite us to interpret them—as befits our democracy—as we wish.

Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809)

A skilled draftsman and architect, Jefferson was also a noted epicure. While in Europe in the 1780s, he became enamored of pasta—so much so that he stuck a feather in his inkwell, sketched out a design, and called it a “maccaroni”-making machine. In 1802, he served macaroni and cheese in the White House.

Click on the image for a larger view.

. . . . .
Andrew Jackson (1829–1837)

Jackson was the first president to leave behind full-fledged doodles from his time in office. This drawing dates from 1833. Although Jackson’s immediate predecessor, John Quincy Adams, had kept a pet alligator in the White House, the animal was more commonly associated with Jackson’s military exploits. An 1828 campaign song, “The Hunters of Kentucky,” celebrated Jackson’s heroics at the Battle of New Orleans, in 1815, noting that in his brigade, “Every man was half a horse / And half an alligator.”

Click on the image for a larger view.

. . . . .
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881)

Hayes drew this woman’s face in his “Diary of a Deferred Wedding Journey,” recounting the details of a holiday he took with his wife, Lucy Webb, eight years after their 1852 marriage.

Click on the image for a larger view.

. . . . .
Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909)

Roosevelt’s boisterous brood of six, to whom he often wrote “picture letters,” included Ethel (ten years old in 1901), Archie (seven), and the youngest of the Roosevelt litter, Quentin (four). The boys developed a reputation for mischief. On one occasion, Quentin drove his toy wagon through a full-length portrait of First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes. TR was more often amused than angry.

Click on the image for a larger view.

. . . . .
Warren G. Harding (1921–1923)

Harding is considered one of the worst presidents in American history. The Teapot Dome scandal stood as the benchmark for presidential sleaze until Watergate. But during his presidency he was seen as a handsome, grand-living embodiment of the Roaring Twenties—an image reflected in the energetic Art Deco aesthetic of his doodles.

Click on the image for a larger view.

. . . . .
Herbert Hoover (1929–1933)

Trained as an engineer, Hoover was one of the most prolific presidential doodlers. His pictures are consistently geometric, intricate, and clever in the way they link disparate parts into a larger whole. But while his doodles hinted at elaborate and expansive visions, they never included any people. This failure to take human beings into account was all too evident in his slow reaction to the Great Depression.

Click on the image for a larger view.

. . . . .
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945)

FDR’s drawings as president were mostly related to his hobbies: genealogy, stamp collecting, ships, and fishing. After Prohibition was repealed, in 1933, the Department of the Interior established a company to promote economic development in the Virgin Islands. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes was tasked with choosing a name and a label for the company’s rum. He proposed “Peg Leg Rum,” but FDR balked. They ultimately chose a blander name: “Government House.”

Presented by

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In