Interviews September 2006

Doodlers-in-Chief

Sina Najafi talks about his quirky publication, Cabinet Magazine, and its forthcoming book of doodles by U.S. presidents
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book cover

Presidential Doodles [Click the title
to buy this book]

by the editors of Cabinet Magazine
Basic Books
176 pages

In its September issue, The Atlantic ran an excerpt from Presidential Doodles, a book from the creators of Cabinet magazine, featuring drawings by U.S. presidents of nearly every era. The book includes everything from founding doodler George Washington’s geometric patterns, to current Chief-of-Doodles George W. Bush’s gracious scrawled request for a potty break while at the UN last year. The doodles capture presidents when they’re not looking, offering insight into the personalities behind the politicians. As historian David Greenberg writes in his introduction,

Offering glimmers of and glimpses into the private president, doodles constitute small sources of potential understanding to a public that is forever striving to gain insight into its leaders. After all, the meaning of these doodles is in good measure what we make of them—a liberating and democratic realization, and a statement that’s equally true of the American presidency itself.

Presidential Doodles encapsulates many of the elements that Cabinet founder and editor-in-chief, Sina Najafi, seeks to put into his bold, independent magazine, including abstract humor, unusual art, and obscure world history. Every issue of Cabinet, now in its seventh year of publication (an eternity in non-profit magazine years), contains writings on such curiosities as arbor sculpture, Kamikaze pilot training, and the medical history of the vibrator. The latest cover features the theme “insecurity” paired, thought provokingly, with a close-up photo of Dallas’s J.R. Ewing, that jovial emblem of the Reagan-era, the upward-bent brim of his red cowboy hat matching his confident smile. Each issue also includes special artist projects that range from a postcard to a foldout poster to a do-it-yourself mobile.

Najafi is himself a fascinating cultural amalgam. Born in Iran and raised in England, he is currently working toward his Ph.D. in comparative literature at NYU while spending at least 80 hours a week in the donated space in Brooklyn that is Cabinet’s office. About the new book he says, “The doodles have this uncanny way of getting past the well-manufactured image that a lot of presidents, especially modern presidents, put out there. A doodle, because of its casual nature, breaks that fortress and shows you a little bit of what’s going on with the person.”

We spoke by telephone on August 11.

—Shaun Raviv



Sina Najafi
Sina Najafi

Your dissertation is on art trials in the United States, in which the definition of art is sometimes at stake. When Brancusi’s Bird in Space statue was brought into this country in 1927, customs officers classified it as a kitchen utensil and imposed a tariff on it. The book that Cabinet has just produced on presidential doodles makes me want to echo the court’s question in Brancusi v. United States: are the doodles by U.S. presidents actually art?

I don’t think any of them really are art. They’re more representative of the personalities of the people who drew them. I’ve come to admire some of the presidents just because of their doodles. What I really liked about Eisenhower’s doodles, for example, is that you get a sense of the incredible historical pressure this one human being must feel. He literally is the most powerful person in the world. These kinds of pressures show themselves in Eisenhower’s doodles in the many drawings of broken fingers, broken pencils and missiles going in the wrong direction. Always a broken phallic symbol of some sort, as if the mandate is just too much. And it is too much. You see him as a human being, a guy called Ike, and also as the president who’s supposed to have this official status. The gap between the two personas is very visible in some of his doodles. You can almost hear the speech he made when he left the presidency, the warning that he sent out to the U.S. about what was happening with this country.

What was the genesis of the project?

Like a lot of the best ideas it began as lines blurted out at an editorial meeting. In 2002 someone asked, “Are there doodles by famous people that we could gather?” Sasha Archibald, at the time our intern but now our associate editor, went out and started to do research, and very quickly she came back with some great doodles by Jack Kerouac and John F. Kennedy. We were looking at these drawings and we couldn’t decide which way to go. But then we heard this phrase “presidential doodles” – and it had this collision of high and low that kept us snickering all day long.

How many different presidents did you get for the book?

Roughly half. For some of them, it’s questionable whether the scribbles we included were doodles or not. For some of the earlier presidents, George Washington for example, there are a lot of what we call proto-doodles, writings containing the desire to doodle even though the context isn’t there.

At that time people performed handwriting exercises—very elaborate flourishes that you would practice for your signature. Sometimes the pen lingered a little too long, and the flourish became an extra little flourish veering from the exercise. You can see the pleasure of the pen meandering on the page. We found proto-doodles like this from many of the early presidents. But they are not all doodles proper.

Also the definition of “doodle” is something we struggled with for a long time. According to the dictionary, being unconscious of what you’re doing is often part of the definition. If you know that Reagan sat down to do a drawing of someone, as he often did, some definitions would say that he had created a doodle, and others would say he hadn’t. It’s tough to know where the unconscious ends and conscious deliberation starts. Reagan’s fans, especially little kids, knew that he loved drawing and doodling and they would send him drawings and sometimes he would send one back. We have a couple of those in the book.

When searching for the doodles of past presidents, were you hoping to catch them in intimate moments, perhaps finding Clinton’s drawing of a “meeting” with Monica, for example?

Unfortunately, Clinton’s presidential library opened only this year so it was a tad too late for us to get something in the book. But the doodles are very different from president to president. Reagan, for example, who had dreams of being a cartoonist, made very workmanlike doodles. They’re nicely done, but he had a limited repertoire, drawing the same people again and again. In that way, they’re not very interesting, but there is a level of art that he brings to it that you don’t find in someone like Kennedy.

Kennedy made these strange word poems, once writing “Austria Neurotic Cheese” again and again on a piece of paper. What meeting is this where Austria, neurosis, and cheese are being discussed? Or maybe these things are not being discussed. Maybe they’re discussing Austria and he’s thinking on the side about neurosis and cheese.

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Shaun Raviv is a freelance writer based in Accra, Ghana.

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