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

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.

Paul Collins writes in the foreword, “Republicans are the greatest doodlers.” Do you think he’s correct, from an artistic standpoint?

Unfortunately, I think he’s right. The pleasure that we've gotten from the doodles of Eisenhower and Reagan is greater than what we’ve gotten from others. But that’s for everybody else to judge. If this were art history there might be some criteria you could wheel in and objectively say, “This painting is not as good as that painting.” But I don’t think the history of doodling—if it does have a history – has criteria for judging something like that. It’s more subjective.

That’s what makes these doodles so special—they make the presidents seem more human, revealing facets of their non-official personas that most of us aren’t aware of. How much about a president can you discern from his doodling?

We thought at one point about bringing in a graphologist or a psychoanalyst. But any attempt to impose interpretations is somehow doomed because there’s no key for these things. Of course that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to see in them.

My home-brewed idea of Eisenhower has definitely changed as a result of these doodles. I sort of feel for him actually, as a person. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I get a sense that no matter what he’s doing, even when he’s taking militaristic action, you can see the public and private split that I mentioned. Some of the doodles were produced during meetings that discussed an intervention in Guatemala and you can see in them that he’s the first of the presidents to really show anxiety about being president.

It’s also very tricky with someone like Reagan. I feel like I can see the naïve, homey persona that he helped manufacture, but I don’t think he’s doing it as part of that same public persona. It really is him. In that sense you can say, “My gosh, this guy really believed in the persona that he put out in the world.” It wasn’t as much a mask as some people think. Here he is in his most private moments, writing a letter to Nancy, and you get a taste of this almost juvenile sensibility, which is full of love and naiveté. I wasn’t a great Reagan fan, but his doodles are charming because you believe that he believes what he is doing.

It’s been noted that Stalin drew hearts and Hitler drew dogs and flowers. What doodles by a U.S. president do you think people would find most surprising?

We found a lot of drawings Franklin Roosevelt made for stamps. If he thought the U.S. should have a stamp for a particular event, he made a drawing for it.  He also drew a label cover for rum bottles that the U.S. government was going to put out. The guy is running an entire country, implementing the New Deal, and all this stuff is happening internationally, and he’s also doing these little stamps. Even at Yalta he had his entire stamp collection with him. Roosevelt was extraordinary in that he was a micromanager, probably the first micromanager on that scale.

The title of the magazine you founded and edit, Cabinet, alludes to a cabinet of curiosities, reminding me of a room filled with unicorn skeletons, torture instruments, and photos of circus sideshow stars. How does the magazine reflect that theme in its pages?

A cabinet of curiosities refers to a moment in history, the pre-museum period where whatever was of interest was included and you didn’t try to make distinctions. Natural things and manmade things were all together in the same room and the idea was that knowledge about the world all hangs together. You didn’t have to be a specialist in the way that we’re encouraged to be now. It’s not a question of being a jack-of-all-trades or policing good knowledge from bad knowledge. If you’re curious about the world we live in, you should be curious about everything. Why are bricks made a certain color? Why are they laid out in a certain order? Why are museum walls painted a certain white? All of these things could be of interest to the person who’s curious about the cultural world we’ve made.

Other small-staffed independent magazines such as Found and Topic have gone in a similar direction, publishing things they find on the street and offbeat art and articles, and drawing small, loyal readerships that feel like mini communities.

We’re certainly not alone in our mission. The online magazine Feed was a great thing for us. It’s now defunct, but they understood that the world is full of interesting things and that you shouldn’t just think about your own little specialization. There are other precedents and other people doing this too, of course. A lot of small magazines are now coming forward and proposing various oblique ways of looking at the world. They’re not doing wonderfully – not rolling around in cash or overstaffed or anything—but they’re finding that they can survive somehow.

I used to work at a small, non-profit magazine with 30,000 readers, with a small, mostly unpaid staff working in a cramped quarters. Does that describe Cabinet?

Everyone at Cabinet volunteers his or her time. Our paid staff is probably one and a half, including me, and we’re up to four unpaid volunteers. We have wonderful, incredible interns. Someone with a Ph.D. from Stanford was just trying to get an internship here. They’re all very smart people. They come here because they love the magazine, not because they see it as a stepping stone to someplace else. They’re believers in some way. We’re blessed for that.

How do you go about finding the curiosities that aren’t published elsewhere?

We have a great network of people around the world who send us things, but it’s also a case of reading things obliquely. You might find an article in a mainstream magazine in which there’s one little line that indicates some path not taken. That path is just as interesting, but it doesn’t have the hook required to make it a newsworthy item; it doesn’t have the connection to the present that a lot of publications need in order to be au courant.

Our magazine doesn’t hinge on the idea of the “hook.” Often our first-time writers try to tie their first paragraph to some kind of contemporary phenomenon, but if the story’s interesting you don’t need to torture yourself to hitch it to some contemporary moment. If it’s interesting, just go for it, and trust that your readers will come with you. And they will come with you. Part of our magazine’s mission is to write a new kind of reader into existence—the reader who says, “I trust these people and I’m going to go along with it, I’m going to read about phantom limbs in the nineteenth century. I’ve never thought about it before, but let’s see where it takes us.”

Also, we’re an art and culture magazine, so we have a lot of artists writing about their interests. That incredible hunger and curiosity that they bring to the world around them is a great source of inspiration for us, and also a great source of writing. When you go to artists’ studios these days, they’ll have cut-up images and text on the walls, and that collection on the wall is often more interesting than what they’ll be doing with it. We encourage artists to show their work but also to write about that stuff on the wall.

Where did you locate the doodles? Are they housed in a presidential cabinet of curiosities, perhaps next to the still-breathing head of JFK?

From the archives:

"The George W. Bush Presidential Library" (January/February 2006)
An unauthorized preview, with never-before -seen drawings of the interior. A cartoon sketchbook by Cullen Murphy and Edward Sorel

We were in touch from the start with archivists at the presidential libraries. There’s a presidential library for every president since Hoover. And there’s a full-time staff dedicated to knowing and caring for the manuscripts there. We had interesting reactions. One archivist described one of our most prized doodles as “a bit of doggerel.” Some of them weren’t comfortable with this kind of request, but some of them thought it was great.

My colleagues, Sasha Archibald and Ryo Manabe, went to the Hoover library and came back with all these pictures from the Hoover museum, including something that we didn’t know existed. Hoover was an engineer, and he did these abstract drawings his whole life. He lived a long time, and even when he was very old he still drew them, even though his hand was shaking. The lines become more wobbly as time goes on and you see age take over. He was well known for doodling during his presidency; one of his doodles was picked up and sold for quite a bit of money. Someone decided to manufacture the doodle as a fabric, and these baby rompers were made with his doodles all over them. Little surprises like that would show up at the presidential libraries.

The number of pieces of paper that were kept in the presidential libraries before Carter passed the 1978 Presidential Papers Act was subjective; it depended on the president. Some were resistant and got rid of things that didn’t seem crucial, so there might have been doodles that existed but that were never preserved for us to see. Chester Arthur didn’t like the idea of having a paper trail after him, so the night before his death he burnt three garbage pails of all his papers, each one four feet high. So there’s very little left. For many years the Library of Congress’ Arthur collection had just a single manuscript. That was all that was left of his presidency.

There are better techniques for preserving papers now, and as time goes on, the importance of keeping everything has become clear to everybody. You don’t have as many people right there making decisions about what to keep or not. The tendency on the whole has become to keep everything and then later let history judge which things are important.

In a perfect world, what would the president of the U.S. doodle?

One doodle that would capture everything is tough to imagine, but a president who doodles a lot of solar panels on homes and small, gas efficient cars would be a president I might consider voting for.