“Good God,” scratched Harry Truman in pencil on the manuscript of a soon-to-be-ex-ghostwriter of his Memoirs, “what crap.” Theodore Roosevelt, miserably immersed in his Autobiography, wrote de profundis to his daughter: “I am working with heated unintelligence ... I fairly loathe it now.” John Adams found prose composition physically distressing, “almost like a blow on the elbow or the knee.” Dwight Eisenhower, brooding over the proofs of his memoirs with a panel of editors, said, “I suppose I’m going to have to go along with these split infinitives.” (“They’re your split infinitives,” an editor reminded him.) Andrew Jackson’s first ghostwriter was shot in the back in the middle of Charleston; his second died suddenly a few months later. The tale of Ted Sorensen, meanwhile, who wrote most (all?) of John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage, is a minor epic of fealty and self-erasure.
Books by presidents ... it’s a vexed and miscellaneous genre. The heavy buttocks of history sit upon it. Literature rarely has anything to do with it. So credit to Craig Fehrman for the compendiousness, readability, and general exuberance of his Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote. The books themselves he sorts briskly into “campaign books” (those written before the author takes office) and “legacy books” (those written after). Plenty of campaign books, of course, are written by nonpresidents. Rand Paul’s superbly titled but little loved Government Bullies, for example: “a book,” Fehrman tells us, “that lazily plagiarized five consecutive pages from a think tank.” (I like that “lazily”; a little more alertness in the plagiarism and there would have been, in a book like this, no problem.) They tend to be rush jobs, and can have a kind of trashy zest. To Herman Cain it was suggested that his entire presidential campaign was nothing but an advanced form of hype for his book. “If you know Herman Cain,” he rejoined, “you know nothing is further from the truth. And if you don’t believe me, I invite you to get a copy of my new book, This Is Herman Cain!”