Novelist-in-Chief: Five Quick Profiles

The rich tradition of Presidents as writers, essayists and novelists

44th President of the United States Barack Obama signing an order (White House Chief Photographer Pete D’Souza)

Early in 2017, The New York Times’ chief book critic Michiko Kakutani interviewed then-President Barack Obama on the subject of literature, creative writing and recommended reading. It’s worth a read in it’s entirety, but in particular I was struck by a passage where Obama describes his authorship of a number of short stories.

“…So even though by the time I graduated I knew I wanted to be involved in public policy, or I had these vague notions of organizing, the idea of continuing to write and tell stories as a part of that was valuable to me. And so I would come home from work , and I would write in my journal or write a short story or two.” — 1.16.2017, Barack Obama, The New York Times

He goes on to explain that these stories were a way of understanding the shared issues and stories within the communities he organized and worked with in Chicago. And ignoring the fact that I would really like to read these stories if they are published one day, Obama is in fact engaging with a rich tradition of the P.O.T.U.S.-as-author/writer/storyteller.

Before I dive into the historical precedent, I think it’s important to define literature. Merriam Webster provides the definition of literature as “writings in prose or verse; especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” For the sake of argument, speeches would also be fair game in this definition, as we have written records or transcripts of them. Plus, given that The Iliad was originally a lyric poem, it’s hypocritical to say something’s not literature if it’s not only in writing. Literature encompasses anything that is a work of creative expression.

However, this definition does give an unfair tautological advantage to the president who writes or authors. Given that the President is THE PRESIDENT, everything produced in writing by any president at any point in history will be important and will always be important from their presidency onward (this goes double for the Founding Fathers like Adams and Jefferson, because it’s all we have to interpret their probable personalities now). Often, presidents are also good writers since most studied at well regarded colleges or had previous careers (law or business) that prepared them to be effective communicators. So why look into it if they are all equally important?

Presidential literature also provides good insight into the personalities of a president, and this is where the writings of Novelists-in-Chiefs becomes most important. By examining the writings of presidents, we find what is important to them, and sometimes why history regards them as more effective than other presidents.

But in keeping with my surprise in finding out that Barack Obama is a regular George Saunders, I thought I would focus on the most interesting writing careers of presidents and the ones that were surprising to me in some way. There’s plenty on certain presidents already (one of whom is in this list in fact), but I wanted to narrow it down to 5 just for sake of essaying, one of which will be Obama himself.

Unfortunately, this means I left out the only two presidents who were “professional writers” before the Presidency. Both Benjamin Harrison & Warren Harding, despite being a respectable court reporter and newspaper editor respectively, were not exemplary writers in any sense. I’m also leaving out Thomas Jefferson because he was also a professional writer-but he was also a polymath and well regarded with doing almost anything.

Below are the presidents, in my opinion, had the most interesting writing career to complement their politics.

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt writing an essay for Scribner's while on safari

Alongside his many MANY endeavors in physical fitness and adventuring, Theodore Roosevelt may have been the most prolific author of all U.S. Presidents, publishing over 18 books in his lifetime, including a four volume history of the American Frontier.

He was even at least respected by poets, as Robert Frost is quoted to have said that Roosevelt “was our kind. He quoted poetry to me. He knew poetry.” Roosevelt’s journals are widely available everywhere and online and he worked as an editor for Outlook Magazine while not in a formal political role.

Because of this, Roosevelt was very friendly to the press and in fact really liked talking, doing interviews and answering questions. There’s in fact a [possibly apocryphal] story about TR inviting journalists huddled outside in a rainstorm into a White House annex then giving a press conference, inadvertently creating the White House Pressroom.

He also had a clear sense of quality writing, and he frequently criticized and called out what he thought was bad nature writing (most of his work is centered on his experiences with hunts and safaris). He didn’t like over exaggeration in these retellings, and preferred realism over sentimentality.

TR’s literary view of nonfiction writing actually informs his presidency quite well. One of his more famous speeches, “The Strenuous Life,” lays out what he believes a well-pursued American life should look like:

“Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

The idea was to not be weak in one’s struggles with life, but also to face no fabrications of life either. Roosevelt’s appreciation of literary realism ends up well describing himself as a President and politician.

James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Jimmy Carter at the Resolute Desk in the late 1970s

Jimmy Carter was in fact the first President to publish a complete work of fiction: The Hornet’s Nest (albeit the work was historical fiction — using real people and real settings below a somewhat fabulated plot of events)

But Carter is also credited with one of the more engaging campaign biographies, though not well reviewed as it turns out. Carter had a very blunt writing style that turned off a lot of readers, though this was also a selling point to many of his books — you got what you expected with Carter’s writing.

But again, my theory rings true again. During the one term of his presidency, Carter had to pick up a lot and had a number of issues from day one. He persisted and tried his best and kept going. And after he lost the election to Ronald Reagan, he took a step back and founded the Carter Center — which went on to do a lot of good within the international community.

His books stand as a good metaphor for his presidency. Generally not extremely well liked at the time, but with retrospective thought, we appreciate the great effort and time that went into creating them. It doesn’t mean that they’re ‘failures’ in a sense, but there is a general appreciation for the effort of writing — something that is eminently hard to do and continue doing. Something Carter did and continues to do at the time of this writing: he writes and he is engaged. That alone is something to appreciate.

Abraham Lincoln

A lithograph of Abraham Lincoln delivering The Gettysburg Address

Generally when compared to Abraham Lincoln, a lot of presidents come up short — some very much so. In terms of writing comparison, it’s almost embarrassing how talented Lincoln was at writing both soaring speeches and quiet entries into his personal journals and diaries.

It’s widely reported that Lincoln had no speechwriters, and a quick analysis of his personal writing to speechwriting shows a consistency that can only be achieved by the same hand. Obama and Reagan, while generally regarded as two of the best presidential orators of recent times, both had speeches which felt hollow or fell flatter than others.

Not so with Lincoln. He’s such a well regarded speaker and writer by most of modern America, it’s almost superseded memory of his actual presidency and the actions taken within — that he is now revered by both political parties and ideologies. And he was remembered because he was an unusually well prepared and logical speaker, especially in contrast to the lofty morality and abstract fears slaveholders and abolitionists often appealed to in their speeches. Simple facts and reason often won the day for Lincoln, as many newspapers recalled.

We shall not undertake to tell what he said to the people, but we do not hesitate to say that his arguments on the leading issue between the parties were unanswerable; and we wish every man in the State could hear the same.
 — Paris (Illinois) Prairie Beacon, August 8, 1856

How any reasonable man can hear one of Mr. Lincoln’s speeches without being converted to Republicanism, is something that we can’t account for.
 — Bloomington (Illinois) Pantagraph, September 3, 1858

Mr. Lincoln spoke nearly two hours and we believe he would have held his audience had he spoken all night.
 — Dover (New Hampshire) Inquirer, March 8, 1860

He spoke and wrote well, and prepared himself for every argument. It’s more indicative of his career as a lawyer, but there are many talented lawyers unable to make their points or persuade when needed to in person (compare the writing of the Constitution by James Madison to his actual presidency).

For a select few American writers, there is a panache about their writing that elevates them. I do believe Lincoln enjoyed that luxury as well.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Then-Supreme Commander of The Allied Forces Dwight Eisenhower speaks to servicemen before D-Day

Eisenhower was an uncomplicated man of good morals and ethics. He was not very good at elucidating them in speech or in person, which is why we regard him much more fondly today than previously.

Eisenhower was prone to work behind the scenes and not make any sweeping gestures, which at the time would be difficult to see as anything other than reticience or timidness. But his personal writings reveal he understand most of the issues that were a part of his presidency, and worked quietly to deal with them all with little fanfare.

To be clear, this also means he did very little to fix the problem of Sen. Joseph McCarthy or to advance racial equality by speaking publically — which may have helped along the many social ills plaguing America at the time.

His lack of desire for attention may be from his military days. Eisenhower wrote well-regarded intelligence and battle reports during his time in the military. So much so, that William Randolph Hearst offered him a fortune as a war correspondent. He turned it down.

His writing was uncomplicated but well researched and informed. Eisenhower was difficult to read (in terms of understanding his personal politics) but his uncomplicated writing style reveals a large amount about his personality as a gradualist —thinking about the issues and acting in a very measured way.

Barack Obama

A younger Barack Obama gathering signatures for his Illinois State Senate campaign (The New Yorker)

The literary-president I think has to have culminated in someone like Obama. Regardless of their political affiliation [barring hypothetical future extremists and fascists], I hope that there are many more presidents who were informed by and think about literature as much as Obama did.

Obama as a writer was very similar to the rich tradition of hyperrealist American essayists: he uses vivid imagery alongside prosaic descriptions of ideas and concepts. In many ways, his writing is reminiscent of James Baldwin or Abraham Lincoln at times, depending on what point Obama is trying to make. But the fact that he could switch so easily between a reasoned well-sourced argument to a lofty Aristotelian argument on virtues and hope. It’s remarkable and quite unlike other presidents before, and it sets Obama apart as a writer-President, and also helps defines his actions.

The Guardian actually explained it better in an article I can’t seem to find now. But it said something that Obama took a literary view to his presidency and tried to create policy that considered something like a theoretical view of the world as opposed to a historical view. One would consider that answers are not always easy to find and there will be unexpected consequences when viewing the world as a work of literature.

Now as for why Obama would view the world, and the United States in particular, as literary is another essay I will link here as soon as I have finished it.

For now, we can just appreciate and hopefully read more from these accomplished writers who also happened to be Presidents of The United States.