“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!”
The legacy book, however—lumpy, gassy, the leaden address to posterity—is the exclusive preserve of the big boys: the presidents. Fehrman is lively in his judgments: “deadening and defensive” (Lyndon B. Johnson’s The Vantage Point), “rushed and unruly” (Bill Clinton’s My Life). The staleness of the presidential memoir, he submits, is baked in: “When writing their legacy books, too many presidents try to cover everything and, worse, to justify everything.” That’s the uniqueness of these books, perhaps: Thick with the stodge of government, they also manage a quavering, unstable note of righteousness.
Most presidents have a degree of verbal facility. Some are surprisingly eloquent. The silver tongue of Calvin Coolidge, for example, is hardly a proverb, but listen to this: “Wages won’t satisfy, be they ever so large. Nor houses; nor lands; nor coupons, though they fall thick as the leaves of autumn. Man has a spiritual nature. Touch it, and it must respond as the magnet responds to the pole.” (That’s from a 1914 speech that would provide his campaign book, Have Faith in Massachusetts, with its title.) Theodore Roosevelt was a prolific author. JFK’s desire to be seen as a literary figure, in a literary context, was matched only by his reluctance to produce, by himself, any actual literature. (Profiles in Courage was Sorensen’s work, and Kennedy’s first book, Why England Slept, was—Fehrman explains—extensively rewritten by The New York Times’ Arthur Krock.) But my impression, having flea-hopped around in this area, is that the White House has harbored only three authentically muddy-eyed and pained-by-subjectivity writers: John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.
The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant contain their moments of literary splendor, indeed they do. “Better troops never went upon a battle-field than many of these, officers and men, afterwards proved themselves to be, who fled panic-stricken at the first whistle of bullets and shell at Shiloh.” An amazing sentence: The backward-facing syntax, like time-lapse photography in reverse, micro-mechanically reviews the process by which the raw and terrified Union recruits at the battle of Shiloh became seasoned soldiers. Grant could be succinct and monumental at the same time: “Disencumber yourself of your [supply] trains,” ran an order that he gave to General John A. McClernand at Champion’s Hill, “select an eligible position, and feel the enemy.” I can’t put Grant on my list of writers, though, because he was driven to writing by circumstance, and took it up in a soldierly way. Bankruptcy gave him the spur; Personal Memoirs began as a series of military reminiscences, sold for some quick cash to the magazine The Century. An almost simultaneous diagnosis of terminal throat cancer provided an appalling deadline. Also, having won the Civil War, he had better stories than most presidents.
John Quincy Adams, by contrast, wanted very badly to be a poet. The sixth president pined, even in office, for a parallel poetic existence, one in which his yeoman’s verses had helped found a literary tradition for his rude young country. “I want the voice of honest praise / To follow me behind / And to be thought in future days / The friend of human kind.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson loved that poem, “The Wants of Man.”) To be, as he put it, “at once a man of business and a man of rhyme”— wouldn’t that be an American dream? Lincoln, meanwhile, having as a teenager pored over, memorized, and metabolized the monologues from Shakespeare’s plays collected in a primer called Lessons in Elocution, developed an ability to impress his words upon the mind of a reader or listener with an authentic, metal-on-metal Shakespearean clang. Here he is in March 1832, in southern Illinois’s Sangamo Journal, writing publicly for the first time and making the case for himself as a candidate for the state legislature: “I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me ... If the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.” He sounds like Richard III. Obama’s Dreams From My Father was another kind of dramatic speech: storytelling, acutely self-aware, riding the edge of a taut, cool anger.
Few thrills, it must be said, attend the presidential book pile. Much interest, but few thrills. Nonetheless, as Author in Chief proceeds, covering the epochs at a comfortable chronological clip—Washington to Monroe ... Adams to Grant ... Hayes to Roosevelt—a strange Friday the 13th–style tension begins to build. Your scalp starts to itch. What’s going to happen, after all this thoughtful middle-to-highbrowism, when we arrive at the feast of illiteracy that is Trumptown 2020? What happens when we get to now? Does the book have a built-in whoopee cushion? Will a big red boxing glove on a spring pop out and punch the reader in the nose?
As it happens, Fehrman stops dead after Obama—toes tingling, as it were, on the rim of the abyss. The man recently hailed by a White House spokesman as “a best-selling author and deeply gifted orator who packs arenas and has a meticulous and carefully honed method for writing his speeches” is barely featured. So let us attempt to place him in this lineage of presidential authorship. There’s The Art of the Deal, since repudiated by its haggard-with-remorse ghostwriter, and the other blaring pseudobooks: Never Give Up, Think Big, and so on, all the way to 2015’s Crippled America.
And then there’s the book that Trump is writing, right now, in bloops and blurts and squiggles of sleepless id-energy, onto the American ether: his Twitter feed. It comes off the top of his head, a verbal precipitate in pellet format. It has no history. From time to time it serves as a portal, or a chute, to a roiling netherworld of paranoia and malign fiction. Exclamation points, relentlessly overused, give it a weird comic brio. It’s unserious, like the man himself, while flirting continually with catastrophic real-world consequences. The classic Trumpian mind-wrecker, in other words: weightless and crushing, frivolous and disastrous at the same time. Each new tweet burns a library, blots a memory, wrecks an archive, fries a synapse. Posterity—if there is one—will marvel. And the after-Trump republic—if there is one—will no doubt be looking, with some desperation, for a return to presidential dullness. To fat, pedantic memoirs by worried men. We’ll want it then, this healing, heavily paginated monotony.